Language & Culture

Vietnamese zodiac – introducing the 12 animals of lunar calendar

Each lunar new year in Vietnam is themed with an animal, one of the 12 Vietnamese zodiac animals. Why is this and how does the Vietnamese zodiac system work?

Why your birth year is important in Vietnam

In Vietnam astrology is based on the year of your birth (according to the lunar calendar), unlike the West where star signs are based on the birth month.

It’s said that the year of our birth, and the animal associate with that year, tells us things about ourselves and our lives.

Your Vietnamese zodiac year affects how you give your age. Rather than being asked how old you are or the year of your birth, you may be asked which animal sign you were born under. From which people can work out your relative age and know how to address you correctly, as well as assuming some personality traits based on your lunar zodiac animal.

Is the Vietnamese zodiac the same as Chinese?

The Vietnamese zodiac follows similar principles to the Chinese zodiac, with a different animal for each lunar year.

The main difference lies in the actual animals associated with the year. Most of the animals are the same with the exception of the Vietnamese cat (Chinese rabbit) and water buffalo (Chinese ox). These two creatures are thought to represent Vietnamese culture better than their Chinese counterparts.

What is my Vietnamese zodiac sign?

First of all remember that the signs follow the lunar new year, not the Western calendar year.

If you were born in January or early February, you may need to double check whether you were born before or after the lunar new year.

The 12 Vietnamese zodiac animals (con giáp)

The lunar year that’s currently ending is the year of the tiger and the new lunar year starting on 22 January 2023 is the year of the cat in Vietnam.

Here’s a list of the Vietnamese zodiac animals and the years they’ve occurred or will next occur:

Year of the Rat (con tý / chuột) 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020
Year of the Water Buffalo (con trâu) 1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009, 2021
Year of the Tiger (con hổ) 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010, 2022
Year of the Cat (con mèo) 1927, 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011, 2023
Year of the Dragon (con rồng) 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, 2024
Year of the Snake (con rắn) 1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013, 2025
Year of the Horse (con ngựa / ngọ) 1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014, 2026
Year of the Goat (con mùi / dê) 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015, 2027
Year of the Monkey (con thân / khỉ) 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016, 2028
Year of the Rooster (con dậu / gà) 1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017, 2029
Year of the Dog (con tuất / chó) 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018, 2030
Year of the Pig (con lợn, heo) 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019, 2031

Some years have two names as the northern and southern words for that animal differ.

How to ask and answer about zodiac signs

If you want to know someone’s animal sign you can ask: Con giáp của bạn là gì?

You’d answer like: Mình tuổi con mèo. (I was born in the year of the cat. Literally said as “I’m cat age”.)

Over to you: What’s your Vietnamese zodiac animal sign?

Language & Culture

Why is kitchen ‘nhà’ bếp not ‘phòng’?

Most rooms in the house have ‘room’ (phòng) as part of their name. Phòng ngủ (bedroom), phòng khách (living room), phòng ăn (dining room) but bathroom and kitchen are a notable exception: they use nhà (house or building).

This seems weird in this day and age where houses and flats are self-contained but think back several years to when outhouses were the norm, and it starts to make sense.

Traditionally Vietnamese people also cook outside of the main house, usually in outbuildings to protect the cooking area from wind and rain.

Not really the picture I was looking for, but the building on the left could be the kitchen... Source.
Not really the picture I was looking for, but many countryside houses have outbuildings… Source.

Having outbuildings is still a really common set-up in the countryside. In cities, where space is an issue, these facilities have been taken inside yet the names remain: nhà bếp (kitchen) and nhà vệ sinh (bathroom).

Is it phòng tắm or nhà vệ sinh?

Nowadays phòng tắm (where tắm means shower or wash) is often used for an inside bathroom, like you’d find in a house or hotel room. Whereas, like in English, toilet facilities in restaurants or other public places would be nhà vệ sinh.

Language & Culture

The Quick Guide to Vietnamese names, titles and what to call someone

Have you ever wondered what to call your Vietnamese friend? Which name to use? Or why there are so many Nguyễns?

Read on to find the answers to all these questions and more in this guide to Vietnamese names and addressing people.

Common Vietnamese last names

The most common Vietnamese surname is Nguyễn. About 40% of Vietnamese people have this last name, taken from the Nguyễn Emperors, the last dynasty of Vietnam. Back in those days, the surname of the Emperor was often used like a clan name.

Other common surnames such as Trần and Lê have a similar origin, which is why these names are so common in Vietnam.

The most common Vietnamese surnames. Source.
The most common Vietnamese surnames. Source.

Vietnamese name order

Another difference is that names are written the opposite way round to Western names. The surname is first and the given name last. Vietnamese usually have 3 or 4 names in total.

Let’s look at an example: Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai. This common street name comes from a historical figure of that name.

  • Nguyễn is the surname and that comes first.
  • Thị is a common and traditional middle name which denotes that the person is female. The male equivalent of Thị is Văn. Many years ago almost everybody had a name like this (especially Thị). These names are still used nowadays but not to the extent they were before.
  • Minh and Khai are given names. Sometimes people have one, sometimes they have two. While each name has its own meaning, certain combinations of names have special meanings.

Most Vietnamese people go by this final name – so in this case we’d usually call this person Khai (or Ms Khai). However, some people prefer to use both given names. This is often happens with very common names like Anh: people will introduce themselves with the two used names together like Vân Anh or Minh Anh.

This second given name can also be useful if there are several people with the same given name (eg. 2+ Khai’s in the same class/office), we can be specific and refer to her as Minh Khai.

Vietnamese titles

However this homogeneity of last names is not that important as in Vietnam surnames are not used very often. They are used for official paperwork and when filling in forms. But you’d never address someone as Mr or Ms Nguyễn.

So how do you address someone correctly in Vietnamese?

In informal situations, given names are used as expected. (Eg. You’d call me Thảo.)

In formal situations you’d call someone Mr or Ms Forename. For example, Ms Thảo (em Thảo or cô Thảo depending who’s talking) or Mr Vũ (anh Vũ).

In very formal situations you may use Ông or Bà instead. A famous example is Hồ Chí Minh who is referred to as Bác Hồ. Following Vietnamese convention his friends would have called him Minh (though actually he had many names throughout his life).

Pronouncing common Vietnamese first names

To wrap up, here’s a video from Every Day Viet covering the pronunciation of some common male and female given names in Vietnam.

Over to you: What do you think about Vietnamese names? Did you know the story behind Nguyễn before?

Language & Culture

ơi is an endearing word in Vietnamese

ơi is one of my favourite Vietnamese words.

Why do Vietnamese people say ơi?

Let’s look at the most common uses of the Vietnamese word ơi.

1. Em ơi

(Or anh ơi or chị ơi.)

A common phrase and essential to anyone spending time in Vietnam, yelling ‘anh ơi’ or ’em ơi’ at a waiter to get his attention sounds rude to an English speaker’s ear because the word ‘oi’ in English has negative connotations.

Not so, for ơi. It’s used all the time for getting someone’s attention but also can be used when talking to someone – such as to address your teacher.

You should address him as "anh ơi" unless you're sure he's younger than you. If that's the case you can use "em ơi".
Getting a waiter’s attention. By the way if you’re not sure about your relative ages, it’s politer to address him as “anh ơi” rather than “em ơi”.

I miss this simple but clear way to get someone’s attention. In English the best we have is ‘excuse me’.

2. Trời ơi

If you spend any time in the south of Vietnam, you’ll hear a universal exclamation trời ơi.

Literally speaking, ơi is used when addressing the heavens. This meanis something like OMG or “heavens!”.

This southern phrase is a mild phrase, widely used by young and old alike.

In the north you might hear ối giời ơi.

3. To show affection

So far we’ve seen ơi used to get attention.

It may surprise you that ơi is used as a term of affection. Between parents and children. Between friends. Between lovers.

Calling your special someone ’em ơi’ or ‘anh ơi’ is actually very sweet and endearing! Like saying ‘dear’.

Related post: The Quick Guide to Vietnamese names, titles and what to call someone

Over to you: Did you know all of these meanings of ơi?

Language & Culture

The French influence

For 67 years, Vietnam was part of French Indochina. You can still see pockets of French influence from grand old buildings in the cities to the presence of Catholicism, right down to the fluffy baguettes you can find everywhere in Vietnam.

Linguistically, French and Vietnamese are very different. Although French was used for official business and in education during that period, finding people in Vietnam who can speak French today is pretty rare.

But nonetheless some words have been borrowed for foreign items like foods and other such objects that were introduced to Vietnam by the French. These words have of course undergone spelling and pronunciation changes to make them Vietnamese, but the French root is still easily seen.

This Taipei Times article has a more extensive list, but some of those words have definitely fallen out of use in modern Saigon.

Probably the very first, and most significant, French influence on the Vietnamese language was the creation by a French missionary of the Vietnamese roman script (called quốc ngữ) – the writing system which replaced Chinese-style ideograms.